- Greg Ostendorf, ESPN Staff Writer
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Before the season, Auburn was predicted to finish fifth in the SEC West and Missouri sixth in the East. Now both teams are ranked in the top five of the BCS standings and will play Saturday to determine the SEC champion. Here are five things to watch from the game.
Unlikely QB matchup: At this time last year, James Franklin was sitting at home after missing the season finale with a concussion. Nick Marshall was about to embark on a recruiting visit to Indiana. On Saturday, the two will meet in the SEC championship game. It was supposed to be the Year of the Quarterback in the SEC with names such as Johnny Manziel, Aaron Murray, AJ McCarron and even Zach Mettenberger, but it was Franklin and Marshall who emerged from the pack. Franklin has battled injuries all season but returned in time to lead Missouri past Ole Miss and Texas A&M. Marshall is the conductor for the league’s top rushing offense. He leads all SEC quarterback with 922 yards rushing and has accounted for 21 touchdowns on the season.
Playing tall: Neither Chris Davis nor Jonathon Mincy are quite six feet tall, but the duo will be asked to cover Missouri wide receivers L'Damian Washington (6-4) and Dorial Green-Beckham (6-6) on Saturday. It’s a tall order for the Auburn cornerbacks. Washington, in particular, has been difficult to defend this season. He leads all Mizzou receivers with 14 receptions on passes of 15 yards or more. At 6-2, safety Ryan Smith is the tallest player in AU’s secondary and could play an integral role on the defense. Auburn has 12 interceptions on the season, a dramatic improvement from last season, when the Tigers had just two.
Turnover streak: Auburn has only turned the ball over 16 times this season, which ranks in the top half of the SEC, but it faces a Missouri team that has forced a turnover in 42 straight games, the longest current streak in the nation. The last time Missouri failed to forced a turnover was in October 2010 against Nebraska. It will be important for Marshall and the running backs to protect the football as Missouri is 15-5 during the streak when it wins the turnover battle. However, the Auburn defense has also had a knack for forcing turnovers this season. The Tigers had caused a turnover in eight straight games prior to last week's game against Alabama. Whoever wins the turnover battle Saturday should have the advantage.
Special teams: How important are special teams? Just ask Alabama. The Crimson Tide not only missed four field goals against Auburn last week, but the last one was returned over 100 yards for the game-winning touchdown. Missouri can’t expect for that to happen again, but the East winner has had its share of kicking issues this season. If Andrew Baggett makes a field goal against South Carolina, the Tigers could still be undefeated and in the driver’s seat for a spot in the BCS title game. Since that game, Baggett is just 2 for 4 on field goal attempts. Kickoffs could also play a factor. Missouri and Auburn rank 100th and 101st in kick return defense nationally, and both teams rank in the top 25 in returns.
Home-field advantage: It’s 700 miles from Columbia, Mo., to Atlanta. It’s just over 100 miles from Auburn to Atlanta. Needless to say, it could be a pretty Auburn-heavy crowd inside the Georgia Dome on Saturday. Not only that, but Auburn has plenty of experience playing in that stadium. The Tigers are 5-4 all-time in games at the Georgia Dome and have played there three times in the past four seasons, including a 56-17 win over South Carolina in the 2010 SEC championship game. Meanwhile, Missouri has never played in the Georgia Dome. It didn’t help that “visiting” Tigers missed their walk-through on Friday.
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